Power Trumps People

February 10th, 2011

Unless we start paying attention, the largest city in Tennessee will officially become the isolated island many in the state consider it to be. Our own suburban state legislators are setting Memphis adrift, blinded by their ambition and working in the interest of a political party rather than the people of Shelby County.

If you do big harm to 70% of yourself, the other 30% is in for a big hurt.

As published in The Daily News, February 11, 2011, and in The Memphis News, February 12-13, 2011

Shelby Count In TN


Fellow I know who worked for S.C. Toof & Co. back in the sixties told a good story about the use of power. Then the company was family owned and the largest printing operation around these parts. Mr. Toof fancied himself a broad-minded leader, open to suggestion and reform. The company's leadership would meet weekly to discuss issues and vote on policy. In one such session, Mr. Toof proposed a change. During discussion, it became apparent that everyone else hated the idea. He called for a vote. "All in favor," he said, and his hand was the only one raised. "All opposed," he followed, and every other hand went up. "Now," he said, sternly surveying the room, "let's weigh the votes."

Shelby County's suburban Republicans have decided if the vote on city school charter surrender doesn't go their way, they'll weigh the votes.

In an unprecedented show of special interest legislation and narrowly targeted repression, they have marshaled the forces of an entire state to stomp Memphis. The interests of 30% of Shelby County residents will supersede those of 70% of the population, and the state laws they are passing will apply only here, and will only become law if city voters surrender the charter.

The new law calls for special school districts in Shelby County, and only Shelby County, the avoidance of which was the very reason the city school board voted to surrender the charter.

Further, the law will establish a 21-member transition commission, 15 of whom will be appointed by Republicans or suburban officials. While the Governor and the speakers of the Senate and House will appoint seats, the Mayor of Memphis won't have one.

Every citizen of Tennessee should be outraged when the minority of elected officials from any one county can manipulate state law to hammer the majority interests of that county into submission.

This isn't just about schools; this is about the burying of your rights by the heavy hand that holds the shovel.

And the rich irony is that the party doing this is all about smaller, less-intrusive government, unless, of course, you're up to something the rich don't like.

I can't think of any more dangerous precedent for this new legislature to set than the micromanagement of one county's affairs to suit a political agenda. If they can do that to us, they can do it to any county that dares to differ with that agenda.

With all the problems Tennessee faces, the most coordinated, rapid response effort our legislature has come up with is to rewrite state law to favor suburban voters in just one county. Couldn't education as a whole in Tennessee – pre-school through reform of the regents system in higher education – benefit more from that kind of concentrated legal brainpower rather than just the well-heeled in Shelby's burbs?

There are 95 counties in Tennessee, and right now it's 94 against 1. That's not a fair fight.

I'm a Memphian, and we shouldn't stand for this.


Scott Banbury: Some say it was haphazard but I see it as a group of leaders stepping up and finally making what has needed to happen for a long time. The 1990 consolidation conundrum was my first taste of Memphis politics moving here and one of the reasons I chose to serve here. Clearing the way for reinvestment in the City by doing away with false dichotomy of quality in PE is the most important task we face in redeveloping a viable--sustainable--regional economy. I have full confidence that the engagement of the most thoughtful of our community will see this all through to a magnificent result. We must float all boats or the ones that do will be swamped in the desperation of those without. "Some folks trust to reason Others trust to might I don't trust to nothing But I know it come out right"

Martha Burkhead: Dan - thanks for your words of wisdom on this issue; please check out a new group of parents that are movin' forward to make public education a priority in this city. We are also involved in the school consolidation issue. www.facebook.com/FriendsUnitedforSchoolEquality What We Believe: - Our community has been divided far too long, and we have much in common with each other - we all want our children to have the best education possible, we all want safe schools, we all want strong neighborhoods and communities. - ALL children in Shelby County have a right to equal access to high-quality education, regardless of race, religion or economic status. - All public school students should have equal access to a safe environment in which to learn, current... (read more) Mission Who We Are: FUSE is a group of Shelby County residents who believe that for our County to remain viable and competitive in the 21st century we must work together as one to provide quality education to ALL of the children in Shelby County Website http://www.fuseshelby.org/

Richard Higgins: The point that Mr. Conaway is making is about the way state government has chosen to interfere with the business and lives of the residents in one particular county, Shelby. All of the other points being addressed are not about his point. This is the typical Memphis bigotted approach. These very people that are oppossed to the merge, the loudest, are the same ones that are leading the charge against the federal governments forcing a national healthcare on us. I for one think that what we have here is basically the same thing, government forcing it's wishes on those they are elected to serve with total disregard for the wishes of the majority of the people. Now, to address what many of the responders to Mr. Conoway's rant are really expressing. I spent 25 years in the Memphis school system, and there are some very grim statistics, yes. But, if we want to point these stats as a reason for not merging, what is really being sugggested? I don't need to point this out we all know. Year after year I have watched many of this same group stand along Poplar Avenue expressing their belief on abortion, and year after year I wondered why, if these people really believe what they are expressing, why do I never see them in these(MCS) inter-city schools helping these children who need all of the help and love anyone could possibly give. Yes, some of you have done this and contnue to do so, but the numbers are few. Now, you are again ignoring these children many that the only meal they get each day they get at school, many that don't have a nice home to go to when they leave school, many that the teacher is the most important caring person in their lives, many that live with loving families who don't have transportation, many who have parents that want to assist them with their school work, but don't know how to read, many that go home to an empty house everyday when they leave school, do I need to go on? So where is the Christian, or any religous love being expressed? This move does need planning, organization, and those that truely care about children to be in charge, but not those that I have previously mentioned that need to really look at their heart, and question their real reason that forms their opinion. Children, all of the children in the public schools of Shelby county are important no matter where they live. So, let's put the other harmful thoughts and ideas aside for all of the children. Let's work through this issue with cool heads, and caring hearts for Shelby county's best, our children.

Michael Rowland: Great column, Dan! Keep speaking the truth and perhaps some sanity will come to pass instead of the apocolyptic hysteria that passes for discourse; some of whom apparently comment on your website. In the end, I suspect we all want the same thing - to have our kids educated equally, not have the rules changed in mid stream, and see our city and county growing and a great place to live.

mike Edmundson: Dan, As usual I totally agree.. I wish our city could somehow stand up and fight this but I think even our City Council will fold to the so-called "compromise" of the state.

Kay Lait: I say amen to all of that. Talk about a stacked deck!

janice boone: You nailed it. I have never seen such hypocrisy.

Carol Irwin: Boy... do I completely agree with this commentary! I am sick and tired of this undercurrent discrimination that is going on whether it be at the local level or at the state level. I grew up in Colorado, and have lived in several other states in the US. What is happening here in Memphis is some of the most bizarre and outrageous political barrier-building that I have ever experienced. And understand that I live in Germantown where many of my "neighbors" are unwilling to allow the merger of the schools to happen. I say, bring it on. I can trust people in charge to handle the issues that will arise. All the children of Memphis and Shelby county deserve a more cohesive, effective school system.

Matt Morice: Dan, I agree. It's a shame that Memphis doesn't have more qualified representation at the state level. While that might not stop these shenanigans, it would at least give us some more respected voices in Nashville.

Jeff Warren: Why is what the state is doing to us any different from what we proposed to do to the Shelby county residents without their consent? This whole process is divisive. We just decided not to think the thing through before the trigger was pulled. No data exists that says this "merger" will help students in the least. More potential for harm is likely in my opinion.

Natalie Williams: Well, now that Memphis knows what the future holds in terms of the transition team, they can decide if they want to turn their schools over to these people. We have seen glimpses of intelligence in Memphis, right?

Kristina Garner: What you failed to say that Memphis couldn't manager it's OWN school system, ran it into the ground and now wants to turn over it's schools to Shelby County....but wait they still want to control the county system. They have NO plan, no action of how to run a district with 150,000 kids. Some of you say you trust the people in charge....have you seen Memphis school? The City of Memphis is voting to give up their school charter in order to stage a hostile takeover of the county school system. The city school system performs so poorly and cannot even say what they plan to do about any given scenario of the future system. I believe a 150,000 student school district is too large to be successful and we need tohave municipal school districts. The most responsive and accessible forms of government are those closest to the people that consent to be governed by them. We have this amazing opportunity to redefine how our children are educated. Municipal Schools will allow us to respond to the needs of our kids on a local basis, with greater accountability and efficiency. Allowing the establishment of Municipal School Districts, we will be encouraging competition and creativity, while allowing for neighborhood schools to return to many of our suburban municipalities. This is NOT about race. We don't want our kids to be lost in a huge district. We want our own school with our own say. SMALLER district SMALLER government.

Pattra Womack: http://www.memphisdailynews.com/editorial/Article.aspx?id=56222

Paul Atreides: Your rant raises some excellent points, but I believe there are other issues at work here that might explain the response of the legislature here of late. For one, the erratic and haphazard way Memphis politicians have conducted themselves during the charter surrender showdown. There has been no apparent interest in planning for something of such magnitude by city officials, just an attitude of "How quickly can we drop it? We can figure out the details later.". No reasonable governmental body acts that way and has the best interest of the children in mind. There is also the issue of funding that the city has withheld from MCS ($58 mil I believe) that they have been ordered to repay by the courts. The charter surrender is more about money than it is about doing what is best for MCS students and I believe our state legislature is more than aware of this. Add to that the numerous corrupt or incompetent public officials that Memphians seem to elect year after year, a fleeing tax-base, and a increasing welfare state within the city limits and I believe it is painfully clear to all others in the state that Memphis is in serious trouble. Sometimes in one's darkest hour we stand alone against the pressing crowd and our righteousness is eventually proved right and we are vindicated. Other times we stand alone, bearing the guilt and shame for the sins of our past that we continue in willingly and must bear the punishment due. While I do not feel any of our current legislators are entirely noble (if they were they would likely not be in politics) I do believe they recognize the lie for what it is, and the worm has turned in Memphis' disfavor.

ginger ragan: Why are you only posting comments that support your point of view? It looks like you are the one wielding the shovel, dude! What a hypocrite you are!

martin lyle: The state demanding a plan is not the problem. MCS and the City Council by their actions are in a with their "fire, ready, aim" approach is however a big problem. This merger, forced upon SCS unwillingly, is going to hurt everyone. Memphis residents now see about $10k per student spent. Shelby County is about $2k less than that. After the merger, everyone will be funded at the Shelby County level, that means that means less funding for what was the MCS. Memphians believe this may mean lowering city taxes and raising the burden on the county, but where is the evidence that would happen? When Memphis stopped paying those funds, did they lower any taxes? Taxes never get lowered. So if Shelby raises taxes to meet the spending which MCS has become accustomed, sure it will be spread across the county, but that will hit city residents, AND they will still be paying at the old tax level for the city too. As for the suburbs, what did MCS and the City Council expect? The forced merger with no voice to the suburbs may have seemed great to city residents, but the suburbs will fight back any way they can- that is natural. Sure there is fear in the suburbs- not that either is right or wrong - both school boards and both city and county commissions look like a bunch of power hungry idiots to the other side. When you add in all the unknowns it is concerning and you are hitting right where it hurts most - our kids - and that is whether you are in the city or in the suburbs. You are going to protect your own with everything you have and everything you can do. I hope this turns out for the best, but I really don't see how it will. This has divided the city and county way past the levels ever seen in the last couple generations. In the end the suburban mini-districts will probably be there, but that won't really have any negative impact on SCS, it won't cost Memphis or the County a dime more than it would have cost anyway, in fact it will probably save some money because those suburban schools will provide needed revenue from the school purchases, and the suburbs will most likely fund locally their new schools through local taxes unlike the way that Shelby and City schools were built previously (using County tax dollars). The county will be out the money in the per-pupil expenditure, but if they had those kids in school, they would have spent it there anyway, so that's a wash. But the other factor in the end will be that by closing MCS, that does end the extra $2k in funding the city was obligated for, and if the county does not raise taxes to equal that it seems there will be less for what was the city schools, the county schools will just go on the way they were with similar funding.

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